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Monday, 21 December 2009

What Were They Saying?

By Mark Sherman

As I write this, I am two days away from my birthday. Since I made a decision long ago not to be secretive about my age, I'll say right here that I am turning 67. To slightly change and combine some famous lines,

"Threescore and seven years ago, on a day that will live in infamy, one truth was self-evident: Maybe all men are created equal, but this kid makes us wonder, and not in a good way."

These days, everyone is making videos of their babies but back then, in the 1940s, when I was baby, the most my parents could do was some kind of primitive 8mm home movie, and these never had sound. As far as I know, they only made one such film - a few minutes of me when I was about a year old.

Growing up, I had never viewed it (my family owned no film projector), but when it came into my possession after my parents' death, I felt the need to watch. I felt it would be helpful in my never-ending attempt to understand the somewhat bizarre adult I had become. Unfortunately, the film - now close to 50 years old - was deteriorating, and I was sure that trying to play it on a projector (I did own one at this point) would destroy it.

I also had some 8mm footage I had taken in the early 1970s of my wife and me on a camping trip, and of our nine-month-old son Jonathan a few years later. I was told that I could transfer these to VHS tape. So I did that, and had the ancient film of baby Mark added at the end.

My wife and I were both excited to watch the tape. In the warmth of our home, it was fun to see a few minutes from the first of the three camping trips we've ever done. This one was high on a mountain in Olympic National Park, and we were freezing cold and claustrophobic in our little pup tent. It was a joy to discover that we both hated camping.

And then there was our little redheaded son happily rolling down the hill in our backyard. In fact, as we watched these wonderful clips, we both forgot about what was at the end.

Then, all at once, the color and quality of the film changed, and there appeared a baby sitting in a playpen. "Oh my God!" said my wife, in a voice combining alarm and disgust. "Who's that?" (She might have said, "What's that?" I can't recall now.)

I suddenly remembered what I had tacked on at the end. "Hey," I said. "That's me."

But I could understand her alarm. I did look a little like one of those children with vacant eyes in the posters for that famous 1960 horror movie, Village of the Damned.

The film went on to show me walking between my parents, each holding one of my hands. They are looking at me and talking, but I couldn't tell what they were saying. I kept watching it over and over, eager to see if I could possibly red their lips enough to identify anything at all. This might be so important for my progress in therapy.

But I couldn't make out a word.

At the time, I had a deaf student in one of my classes at the college where I taught, and she was an experienced lip reader. Excited by the possibility of finding out what my parents were saying - probably about me - in the film, I asked her if she could please watch it and let me know the words their lips were forming.

When I saw her again five days later, and she returned the film to me, I asked, "What were they saying?"

"I couldn't tell," she said.

"Really?" I said. "Nothing?"

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's old film and they weren't looking right at the camera."

"Well, thanks anyway," I said. "But read my lips: I'm afraid this means an F for you in the course."

Of course, I didn't say that last part, but I was disappointed. And more than that, I was concerned. This woman was an expert lip reader. She never had any trouble understanding what I was saying in class.

Maybe she had been able to read my parents' lips, and just couldn't bring herself to tell me. Maybe what she read was my father saying, "God, look at this kid. I hope the next one is better-looking," and my mother (who would have been about two months pregnant) replying, "Yes, and he seems like such a little moron. Oy. The next one's gotta be an improvement."

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post



I enjoyed reading your story and, if what you think your parents said on the film is true, your lip reader is more of a friend than a student.

She is a good hearted diplomat..

Poor you, poor baby, if you are just joking, you could do stand up..if you are not, glad you are in therapy..I am about to be 69, back then only baby pictures were usually taken in dept stores, I guess..never saw pictures of my parents, who died too young at 44..years later at an Aunt's house for another funeral she asked me to look thru a box of pictures for one of a friend of hers who was coming to this funeral & there was a little 2"x3" snapshot at the beach in bathing suits of my Mother & Father..they were l8 or l9..I couldn't wait to get back home to send copies to my two sisters and brother..In a women's group (yeah, that era)the leader asked us all to reparent ourselves around some memory we had that we felt our parents hadn't done a good job at & there wasn't one person in that group of 30/40 women..who did not have some scene like the one you describe about that baby pictue..You have at least 20 years to make it better for yourself..Wow, you certainly can write...Mary Follett

It was fun to read it, Mark, but even funnier when you read it. Yes, Mary, he could do stand-up and I think has done some, right, Mark?
Please keep submitting--it's great to start my day with a chuckle.

Mark - I think it is far better that you didn't find out what they were saying. If you had, you wouldn't have been able to write this delightfully funny piece.

(I am sure it was the typical nervous banter that victims of photographers engage in - i.e. as much about concern over their own appearance as anything else!)

Great writing - Sandy

Anybody, well, most bodies that grow up to be professors to me are accomplished people. For example: You are certainly a gifted writer. Enjoy!

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